HP 455 G3 Ubuntu laptop - Linux on a budget

Canonical’s Ubuntu can be run on just about any x86 machine with a recent and compatible BIOS so who buys pre-loaded machines? HP clearly thinks there is a market for such a thing and recently announced three 15.6-inch laptops running the operating system, competition for a similar range of systems made by Lenovo aimed at the same market.

With the HP 255 G3, 355 G3 and ProBook 455 G3 (reviewed here), HP has decided to take a more budget route, however, basing them around AMD hardware, which chops £50 to £100 off the cost compared to Lenovo’s Intel-based designs which also have less memory and smaller hard drives.

Although pre-loaded Ubuntu still feels like a special order, it is in fact certified to run on 384 PCs and laptops from Dell, 315 from HP, 172 from Lenovo, 24 from Asus and 1 from Intel itself. That’s a huge encouragement in terms of Ubuntu’s long-term support (LTS) and compatibility but slightly misleading in terms of what is on offer off the shelf.

The obvious question remains why an Ubuntu enthusiast or professional would buy a laptop pre-loaded when do-it-yourself is a more natural approach to Linux. One answer is that it can’t in fact be loaded on any system, or can be but requires a bit of tinkering to get everything up and running. Not everyone wants to do that or, in the case of SMEs, values support should problems occur.

An unexpected oddity was that the ProBook 455 we looked at shipped from retail partner eBuyer.com with Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) LTS rather than the most recent LTS version, 14.04 (Trusty Tahr) but it’s possible that because the machine is aimed primarily at developers and power users and HP assumes they will load an intermediate, non-LTS version anyway. We did try 14.04 and hit a known issue with the Wi-Fi that required some unexpected software surgery to put right.

While Ubuntu users value stability and compatibility above new features it’s worth noting that, out of the box, this machine uses software that is more than three years old, albeit that it will have received fixes and updates since then. There is nothing wrong with this but it is a different philosophy from the Windows world where three years would feel like aeons.

In terms of specification this machine sits at the top of the threesome and even comes with the slightly higher build quality afforded by the ‘ProBook’ moniker so valued in the parallel universe of HP’s Windows laptops. What you get for the money is, on paper, very good value.

- AMD A10 7300 Quad core Accelerated Processor (1.9GHz)
- Integrated AMD Radeon R7520G Graphics
- 8GB 1600MHz DDR3L
- 1TB hard drive
- 15.6-inch LED screen
- Webcam, Bluetooth, 802.11n Wi-Fi, 2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet port, SD card slot, DVD drive/writer

Not bad for £299 (£199 until the end of this month with a trade-in) even if the AMD platform has a reputation for trailing the equivalent Intel platform to the A10, the Core i5, in terms of real-world grunt.

Physically, this is a fairly big machine (2.15Kg) in an era where 13.3 inch screen machines are becoming the norm but made from good-quality plastics which appears to have been adapted from the Windows platform (which can also be loaded on the same hardware for an extra £50) - it even features a redundant ‘Windows’ key on the keyboard. Physical buttons are used to activate/deactivate the Wi-Fi and sound while to the lower right of the keyboard a small cover has been added to blank the fingerprint reader offered as an option on Windows machines.

Access to the interior of the machine is through a single-screw arrangement under which a second SODIMM slot is free to boost the RAM from 8GB to 16GB. Due to the presence of a DVD drive, there is only room for one HDD drive at a time.

In terms of performance we have (rather uselessly) decided not to comment using numbers because never having tested an Ubuntu laptop before we lacked anything to compare it with. The responsiveness is reasonable even if HGST (formerly Hitachi) 5,400rpm HDD might be a weakness although it does boot from cold in around a minute.

However, under load, it did everything we asked it to and more, on par with a somewhat more expensive Windows machine from the same stable. While not a workstation, this machine is powerful enough to handle basic day-to-day desktop or developer use with ease.

There are some weaknesses to the HP 455 G3 which have nothing to do with the fact is ships with Ubuntu, starting with the decidedly budget 1366x768 15.6-inch LED screen. We didn’t measure this using an objective test but it’s obvious from the minute you turn it on that corners have been cut here. While bright enough the viewing angles are mediocre. It is identical, in fact, to most of the screens that feature on Windows laptops under the £500 mark so it’s not really fair to pick holes for a machine costing under £300.

Another issue is the weakling 3-cell battery, which is really one corner we wish HP hadn’t cut. Under testing we struggled to get this to three hours of use without dimming the screen a lot. Given its size and weight, this feels like a machine that was made to be kept in one place and moved around infrequently.

OUR VERDICT

The HP 455 G3 is an unusual mixture of budget and performance, a well specified if slightly old-fashioned machine (are DVD drives really that important these days?) that shouldn’t require any upgrades. You could argue it is let down a but by some cut corners here and there, but for £299 it feels a bit churlish to pick on these deficiencies. This is undoubtedly good value for money. Be clear about what you are getting though, namely an Ubuntu system that will be happier on the desk than the road. Some users will want to upgrade to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS which might require a bit of tinkering although nothing to delay experienced users.